Thursday, April 22, 2010

Food for Thought: Simple, Real Mexican

In 2005, my former boyfriend Will and I took a Mexican Riviera cruise that began in Puerto Vallarta. We signed up for an eight hour excursion that included a visit to a small town, where we watched as an extremely strong middle aged woman stirred a huge trough of corn meal, shaped the dough into rounds with her hands, then served us delicious corn tortillas hot out of the oven.

Next we hiked a mile through a rainforest further inland, after which we took a tour bus several miles uphill to a sparsely populated village, where we were deposited at a family’s personal home complete with organic garden. The mistress of the house demonstrated how to grind corn into meal for tortillas using a large stone and hard wooden tray. When she asked for volunteers to help her grind, I quickly indicated my willingness and I was chosen to try my hand at it. I soon discovered that this is very hard, monotonous work, and if my family were dependent on me to make tortillas they would likely starve to death.

Following this activity, she graciously cooked us what were possibly the world’s best homemade tamales, using the vegetables grown in her garden. As our little tour group of eight Americans sat around this nice woman’s kitchen table and quietly ate our tamales, I determined that genuine, homemade Mexican cuisine is completely different from the Mexican food served at cheap restaurants in Atlanta. Years later I read Anthony Bourdain’s description of America’s misconception of Mexican food in A Cook’s Tour. He chides his readers that “You may think you’ve tried Mexican food. Unless you’ve been to Mexico and eaten in a home, you haven’t. Mexican food is not that sour two-day-old sludge foaming and fermenting in the center of your table next to a few stale corn chips, a little limp cilantro turning to slime among the long gone onions.” He goes on to confirm what I was surprised to learn on my cruise: “In Mexico, everything is fresh.” (A Cook’s Tour, pg 210).

I bit into the warm tortillas, knowing that our hostess had ground the corn meal by hand and seasoned our vegetables with only the freshest ingredients. She had spent her weeks growing the peppers and onions, cultivating her garden with an expert and loving hand. We had watched as she efficiently but carefully prepared our meal, and we humbly stood in line to receive our portions, softly mumbling “gracias, senora” as she served us. When she smiled, her eyes shone brightly and her skin glowed radiantly. While I ate this simple meal, I thought that the tamales were one of the top ten best dishes I had ever eaten anywhere in my life. That was four years ago, and although I have eaten hundreds of delicious meals since that time, my opinion remains unchanged.

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